Travel regrets and learning from my mistakes

I have traveled enough now to realize I made a lot of mistakes along the way. Not big mistakes, like forgetting my passport. They were small mistakes, stemming from my personality and expectations, that impacted my travels. I don’t think I even realized they were mistakes at the time, but looking back now, I wish I had done some things differently. Fortunately, now that I have recognized these mistakes, my travels are much more rewarding.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Thoughts on me being me

When I studied abroad in Oxford I was timid. On my own for the first time in a foreign country, I reacted by setting up new routines in an attempt to make Somerville College feel like home. I ate the same breakfast in the cafeteria, took my usual walk around town, and went to the same restaurants and pubs weekend after weekend. All of these routines were comforting, but I ended up falling into a rut.

I did have brief exploratory spells, like a weekend trip to Edinburgh, but overall, I was unadventurous in Oxford. It’s a shame and I feel like I missed out on some great experiences. I did see wonderful things, like Canterbury Cathedral and the Ashmolean Museum, but there is so much more I could’ve done.

Even though I am introverted and shy around new people, I wanted the company of other students while exploring, so I ended up waiting around for friends instead of venturing out. Honestly, I probably would’ve enjoyed walking around on my own more than trying to make conversation; if only I had given it a chance. I want to revisit Oxford with a new outlook, one that is unafraid and independent, so I can truly see the city on my own terms.

Quai de l'Hôtel de Ville, Paris, France

Thoughts on money

Another travel regret is not spending money. I was stingy while studying abroad, to the extent that I passed up unique experiences. I planned and saved for the trip, and I kept a budget while I was there, which is just fine and dandy. However, I wish I had saved or freed up more funds for things like nice dinners, weekend excursions, or a meaningful souvenir. To save money and stick to my budget, I cooked meals in the dorm and ate cafeteria lunches that were included in the program price, but then I didn’t really do anything with that money I saved. Looking back, it would’ve been worth it to splurge a little bit.

Telegraph Hill, San Francisco, California

Thoughts on photography

Every time I flip through (or scroll, because technology) my old travel pictures I think, “What was I doing??” From my first trip to Paris, I have dozens of Eiffel Tower photos and pictures of me and my friends in front of famous monuments, but very few photos of street scenes, unique architecture, or shots of everyday Parisian life. They are one-dimensional photos that don’t offer any depth or details to my memories. Now I spend less time photographing the sights I’m “supposed” to photograph and I focus on capturing new destinations from my own perspective.

Yes, it’s true: Americans can’t go a week without a hamburger

My husband and I must have looked like the world’s stupidest tourists but we needed to know what “English American” cuisine was like.

American food gets a bad reputation, I think. (McDonald’s, anyone?) We have numerous indistinguishable chain restaurants, like Chili’s and Applebees, that serve mediocre, filling food at a reasonable price. Still, you can’t go wrong with a juicy hamburger and crispy fries. We were curious to see what the English version of American cuisine was like, so there we were, two American tourists enjoying a meal at an American-themed restaurant in the heart of London’s Covent Garden.

If the restaurant hadn’t looked so nice, we could’ve been back home. The restaurant was like an upscale pub with wood-paneled walls and a mirror behind the bar. In the US, there probably would’ve been all kinds of crap hanging on the walls, like sport jerseys and autographed guitars.

We treated ourselves to the most lurid cocktails on the menu. Mine was fruity; Joe’s was bright blue. This particular meal was in 2012, so I don’t recall what I ordered. I suppose if it was truly a remarkable meal I would remember my dinner, but I finished it all so it couldn’t have been bad.

I suppose this particular restaurant did a good job of emulating American cuisine. What is American cuisine anyway, besides burgers and fries? Meatloaf? Fish sticks? Frozen pizza? Barbecue? The country is so large and diverse, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what “American cuisine” means.

Anyway, after one American meal in England, this tourist was happy to go back to fish ‘n’ chips, kebabs, and pies at the pub. (I stay away from mushy peas, though. Sorry, England.)

Places:

Maxwell’s in Covent Garden: This is where we got our fix. It was busy on whatever random day we ate here, so it can’t be too terrible.

The Blackbird in Earl’s Court: Our hotel was right around the corner, so we ate here a few times during our stay. Really good pies, beer selection, and atmosphere.

Playing trilingual telephone in Italy

Dove andiamo?” I asked for about the fifth time that day. “Where are we going?”

I was following my friend Bruna and her father around Udine, Italy, like a lost puppy. In an effort to communicate, I taught myself a few Italian phrases, like “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian,” “I don’t understand,” and “A cup of strawberry gelato, please.” It’s a good thing I learned that last phrase, because we were going to a gelateria.

Udine, Italy

I met Bruna during a study abroad program in England. An in-your-face Brazilian-Italian-American, we formed an unlikely friendship that, in contrast to the other friendships I made on the trip, actually strengthened when we returned home. She’s the type of girl who’s up for anything and is always on the go. You could usually find her at the kebab stand, where the guys working there liked her so much she got free food and got to go into the kitchen. (Lucky.) I, on the other hand, was shy, quiet, and not nearly as adventurous.

Udine, Italy

I was getting ready to study abroad in France when Bruna asked me if I’d like to spend a week with her family in Italy before heading to Paris. I jumped at the chance!

Unfortunately (or not, it ended up being interesting and entertaining), Bruna’s family spoke very little to no English, and I spoke no Italian. If I wanted to ask her uncle a question, we had to play a game of trilingual telephone. I would ask Bruna my question in English, she would ask her dad in Portuguese, and he would translate into Italian. It was complicated but it worked.

Several times at the dinner table, surrounded by Portuguese, I found myself following the conversation back and forth even though I couldn’t understand a word of it. If only I was talented at picking up languages!

Udine, Italy

Bruna’s family led me around Udine, a small, walkable city where I didn’t see any other foreigners. We shopped, ate, and sat in the piazzas. For an entire week I let myself be led around Italy, and it was a welcome change. Usually I would’ve been researching things to do and places to see, but in letting myself simply follow someone’s lead, I had a completely different experience. I have to say, it was a relaxing and stress-free week.

Cividale, Italy

Bruna’s family was incredibly generous to host me. Her uncle had us over for dinner nearly every night and drove us to the train station. Her sweet grandmother served us the most delicious chicken and polenta in her mountaintop home. Her father played tour guide for a week and took us to the best places around town. I hope I’m able to see them again one day.

A walk around NYC in spring

My husband and I went to New York City in April while visiting my grandparents. We took the bus from New Jersey and were in the thick of the city 30 minutes later.

New York City

New York defied any pre-conceived notions I had. In my mind, New York City is the American city, but stories of crime, hardship, “the American Dream,” never-ending noise and lights, poverty and luxury, all merge together and make this an intimidating place to me. I thought the streets would be dirty and the people unfriendly but New York City was such an enjoyable place.

The weather was wonderful and it truly felt like spring. After a harsh winter, the city and its inhabitants breathed a sigh of relief and contentment as Central Park grew greener and flowers bloomed along the High Line under a clear sky.

New York City

We just walked and walked – more than 8 miles that day. When we were tired, we sat and watched the people and traffic go by. The best things to see in the city were the people and the architecture; there was so much variety and color. I saw people dancing on roller blades, kids and adults running to pop bubbles, newlyweds taking photos, hundreds of kilt-wearing Scottish-Americans parading through the streets, a hot dog salesman trudging up 9th Ave with his cart and somehow making all of the lights.

New York City is a mass of vaguely ordered chaos. The streets are numbered but they’re bustling. The crosswalk signs flash red but people dash across the street anyway. Travelers corral into the correct lines at the Port Authority terminal, ready to break free and berate the tardy bus driver. It was easy to fade into the background and just watch the tide of humanity rush by.

New York City

Places:

The High Line: A fine place for a walk where you’ll see some unique people and buildings. We got off at Gansevoort Street and strolled around the cobblestone streets for a bit.

Times Square: We were tourists, so we had to. The highlight was the huge Toys ‘R’ Us store, which features an indoor Ferris wheel, an animatronic T-Rex, and several LEGO displays of famous landmarks. I didn’t realize this while we were there, but the store is actually closing and Gap will be moving into the space. Not as much fun.

Smithfield Hall: It’s hard to pick a restaurant when New York City has so many options and you’re bad at making decisions anyway. I pulled up Yelp for some help and we ate at this restaurant/bar for lunch. The burgers were good, a pint was a reasonable price, and soccer was on TV. Good choice!

Central Park: Another place we had to visit, especially since it was such a beautiful day! Find a spot to sit and watch the world go by.

Travel plans: Ireland

In December my family is going to Ireland. This is a big trip for us; it’ll be our first international vacation together.

Joining me will be my mom, dad, brother, and husband. Five people in a group is an awkward combination for travel, especially when they’re all adults. Take, for example, a hotel reservation. Should we book two doubles and a single room? Or a double and a triple? Does anyone mind sleeping on the couch? So this has been an interesting trip to plan already, to say the least, and I think it’ll continue to be tricky.

Dublin, Ireland

They key word is “flexibility.” We have plenty of places to explore, so if we get sick of each other, we can split up and enjoy some quiet time. If places are closed for the holidays, we’ll just have to find something else to do. We’re renting a car for some of the journey, so we’re not limited by public transportation. Our plans, other than our accommodation, are fluid.

This will be my second time to Ireland; I was in Dublin for a weekend trip in December 2012 and had a wonderful time, despite severe jet lag. Why do I keep picking cold, rainy European destinations for my journeys? Well, in this instance, it was a place we could all agree on, and the price was right. Flights to Ireland are consistently low from RDU compared to other European airports.

We have roughly eight days to spend in Ireland and are dividing our time between cities and more remote areas. For accommodation, I chose a combination of hotels and Airbnb rentals. (I would’ve loved to stay in a warm, cozy Irish bed and breakfast, but it was just not in the cards around Christmas time.)

Dublin, Ireland

Dublin

There’s so much to see in the capital city, but we only have about a day there. We’ll be getting in early, so we will easily be able to visit a few attractions, unless jet lag sets in. Having been there before, my top sights will probably differ from everyone else’s:

  • Kilmainham Gaol for some insight on the political and penal background of Ireland
  • Trinity College Library to see the Book of Kells, which I skipped last time
  • Dublin Writers Museum, a place I didn’t know existed until I did some research on things to do in Dublin. I’ll have to brush up on my Irish writers beforehand, of course.

And of course, a nice hearty meal, good beer, and a chilly stroll through the streets will be fantastic.

County Wexford

Around Christmas we’ll be staying in a cottage in a small village. Most things in the area will be closed, so I think we’ll just be having family time here. If it’s open, I would like to see Hook Head Lighthouse, one of the world’s oldest lighthouses. I’d also like to do some walking while we’re there…it seems like such an Irish thing to do! Hopefully the weather will cooperate.

County Clare

Jumping over to the other side of the country, we’ll be staying in a cottage fairly close to the town of Ennis. Besides exploring the town, I hope to view the Cliffs of Moher and see the Burren National Park.

Galway

Our last stop is Galway. Other than checking out Galway City Museum and Galway Cathedral, I’m looking forward to wandering around the city. I’ve heard so many good things about Galway!

Do you have any suggestions on things to do during Christmas in Ireland? I’d love to hear your ideas!

Beach bliss on Ocracoke Island

I’m not sure what I was expecting when my husband and I booked a night at a camp site on Ocracoke Island, a stretch of sand on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, during the last weekend in May. I suppose I envisioned something similar to other OBX beaches; soft sand and moderate development with some summer crowds. Maybe going in with these preconceived notions made Ocracoke seem even more extraordinary, or maybe we truly discovered an amazing place.

Ocracoke Island

While we didn’t sleep on the sand, the campsite behind the dunes was well within earshot of the ocean’s dull roar, which I could hear all night. The campsite, run by the National Park Service, was clean and quiet. I regretfully forgot to pack bug spray, so the horseflies and other pesky bugs were interested in us while we set up and took down the tent.

On Ocracoke, the beach is bigger, the wildlife is warier, and the crowds are smaller. I don’t think they could even be called “crowds”; just groups of people clustered together in the village, the ferry, or the campground. It’s incredibly easy to find your own private stretch of sand on Ocracoke, especially if you own a four wheel drive vehicle. The island is about 13 miles long, and most of it is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Protected lands take up a big chunk of the coastline and the village only occupies the island’s southern tip.

Ocracoke Island

One of my favorite activities from this trip was renting bikes in town. We were leisurely riding around by 9 a.m., after watching the sunrise, with a cool breeze in our hair. We were able to see a lot more of Ocracoke comfortably on two wheels. We saw the bay, the lighthouse, several feral cats, the appropriately named “Back Road,” and some of the cutest beach cottages on the Outer Banks. No four-story mansions or luxurious rentals here.

Even the ferry ride (free from Hatteras) was enjoyable. The hour-long journey took us through beautiful blue water under a clear blue sky. Every time we passed a ferry, naturally, everyone waved to each other. (You know you’re in North Carolina when…)

Ocracoke Island

I almost feel bad thinking about it, because I have so many fond memories of Topsail Island, but Ocracoke might be even better. Topsail is wonderful for a big family vacation; however, Ocracoke felt more natural, undeveloped, and local. And that’s even with many of the motels and inns sporting “no vacancy” signs.

Another thing that was painfully obvious to see, when comparing Topsail to Ocracoke, is how much larger and better protected Ocracoke is. The beach is much wider, even during high tide. The dunes are larger and they nearly line the whole island. These towering dunes are covered in waving sea grass, prickly cacti, and warped trees twisted by the constant ocean breeze, all of which help to keep the sand, and the barrier island itself, in place. As North Topsail Beach is currently facing major erosion problems, it’s clear to see the difference between the two islands.

Ocracoke Island

Even though we were only there for a weekend (and technically, we were only on the island for a little over a full day) time seemed to slow down on Ocracoke. Normally my vacation time seems to zoom by like one of those nimble fishing boats passing the ferry, but this weekend was different.

In short, I’m going back to Ocracoke.

Places:

Top Dog Cafe in Hatteras: A friendly, chill place to stop for lunch. The porch is screened in and lets in a nice breeze. I had one of the specials, a spicy shrimp wrap.

Buxton Village Books in Buxton: A decent selection of fiction, nonfiction, and used books. I picked up a book about the Outer Banks, which I intend to read before the summer’s finished. The place looks tiny, but it has some funky additions in the back.

Jason’s Restaurant in Ocracoke: We ate dinner here and had a good, filling meal. I had the catch of the day, which comes with sides. Lots of options, including pizza, make this an ideal family restaurant.

The Slushy Stand in Ocracoke: After watching the sunrise, we stopped here for an early coffee Sunday morning and rented bikes to see the rest of the island. There’s a nice porch at one of the village’s “busy” intersections for people-watching.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore Ocracoke Campground in Ocracoke: A quiet, clean, and inexpensive way to sleep on the island. Camping is just behind the dunes. There is a creek running behind the campground, so bug spray is a must. Facilities include bathrooms, water fountains, showers, dumpsters, recycling, picnic tables, and grills. Rates start at $23.

Words of wisdom:

There may only be a couple of police officers on patrol on Ocracoke, but they make their presence known. Do not speed on the island. The first car off our ferry was pulled over within two minutes. In the village, I would say it’s best to go under the speed limit. The sidewalks in Ocracoke are small or nonexistent, and there are many pedestrians, cyclists, and golf carts using the road too.

Take sunscreen and bug spray. The horseflies and mosquitoes can be nasty. My pale skin needed sunscreen on the ferry over, before we even got to the island!


Enjoy the photos! I’m really happy with how these turned out.

Recently read: ‘London Style Guide’

I’ve had this beautiful book for years and finally made my way through the whole thing, instead of flicking through pages here and there.

If you’re looking for must-sees on the London tourist trail, the London Style Guide is not the book for you. I would not recommend relying solely on this book to plan a trip, especially if you’re planning your first trip to London. Some of the most popular sites, like the Tate Modern and St. Paul’s, are mentioned in passing, but the focus is on one-off shops, small neighborhoods and boutique hotels.

The London Style Guide

But before I dive into the book’s interior, can we focus on the exterior for a minute? This is a simply gorgeous book with a textured cover and thick, creamy pages; it even smells like a musty old tome found on a dusty bookshelf. It’s certainly a book to display in the open.

The Style Guide focuses on smaller neighborhoods in London, mainly outside of the city center (like Hampstead and Shoreditch). These stores, boutiques, pubs, hotels, and restaurants are where the locals go – all wonderful recommendations for a true London experience. Saska Graville, the author, also interviews local shop owners and in-the-know folks for their insight on London must-sees. All of this information is accompanied by drool-worthy, stunning photos.

Apparently there is a new edition of the London Style Guide out now; I haven’t read it, but I’m sure it’s just as wonderful.

The best books from my childhood

As a kid, I was always reading. I remember going to the library with my mom and coming home with an armful of books stacked up to my chin. I did normal kid things, like watching TV and playing video games, but I devoted the most time to reading.

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Here are some of the books I enjoyed reading over and over again in elementary and middle school. It has been over a decade since I read some of them, so I’m a little vague on the details, but I remember reading these books repeatedly.

Night of the Twisters by Ivy Ruckman

In second grade I decided I wanted to be a meteorologist when I grew up (which didn’t happen, but that’s a story for another day). I was fascinated by severe weather and this book was right up my alley. Night of the Twisters tells the story of Dan, who is home alone with his baby brother when a tornado barrels through. The action is all up front, and he spends the rest of the book trying to find his mother and friends in the severely damaged town. I was old enough to think about how terrifying this would be, and it instilled a sense of deep respect and fear of the forces of nature in 8-year-old me.

The Jewel Kingdom Series by Jahnna N. Malcolm

This young reader fantasy series is one of the first I remember becoming obsessed with. Four princesses live in four different kingdoms, and each is associated with a different jewel/power. I remember the last book in the series came with a special charm bracelet, and I wore the crap out of that thing!

Various American Girl series by various authors

I was the proud owner of a few American Girl dolls and I was an avid reader of the books as well. My favorite doll and character was Molly, who grew up during World War II. While age-appropriate, the books introduced difficult topics like war, poverty, and class differences that appear in American history. I tried to look for these books online, but they, like my American Girl dolls, have been discontinued! (Call me old-fashioned, but the “vintage” covers look so much better than the modern ones.)

Island and Everest Series by Gordon Korman

Other books relating to nature were these two trilogies. Island tells the story of a group of kids who becomes stranded on an island after a storm capsizes their boat. In the Everest series, a group of young, elite climbers attempts to climb the world’s tallest mountain. In both series, there is danger, desperation and death. I read these page-turners over and over again.

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

Throughout this series, the nefarious Count Olaf hatches plans to steal the fortune of the Baudelaire orphans. However, as the series progresses, things become more complex and sinister. What is VFD? Who started the fire that killed the Baudelaire parents? The series held my attention as I got older and I still have them on my book shelf. Snicket’s writing breaks off into humorous asides and tangents and I learned quite a few fancy vocab words from the books (for example, “a tenebrous hue”).

Spellfall by Katherine Roberts

I fell in love with this book, and I think it opened the door to many other fantasy books. After finding a spell, a girl named Natalie is whisked into a magical, mysterious world. She soon finds that this world is in trouble and she must race to save it.

The Harry Potter Series by JK Rowling

Harry Potter is my shit, but it wasn’t always that way. I picked up Sorcerer’s Stone in the fourth grade but thought the first chapter was really boring, so I put it back down. (That’s my one regret in life.) Luckily, I gave it a chance in fifth grade and the rest is history. I’ve read the series countless times…so much that some of my copies are starting to fall apart. I truly feel like I grew up with Harry Potter (like everyone else) and the series will remain in my heart forever.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

A boy genius kidnaps a fairy police captain and demands a ransom; thrilling adventure ensues. The memorable characters and seamless blending of reality, fantasy, action, and science fiction make this book (and the books that follow) lots of fun.

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Matilda doesn’t fit in with her family, so she escapes with books, knowledge, and school when she’s not playing pranks. Turns out, she has incredible telekinetic powers, which she uses to defeat the evil school principal Ms. Trunchbull. This is a classic book that all book lovers should read, I think. For a few weeks after reading this book in second grade, I was convinced I, like Matilda, had mind control powers. Alas, they still haven’t revealed themselves.

The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot

An ordinary girl finds out she’s the princess of a small European country and hilarity ensues. (Full disclosure: I spent about 15 minutes looking for the country of Genovia on my globe.) Mia Thermopolis is an awkward freshman and awkward things happen to her, but she lives in New York City and was in high school, so I always thought that was super cool. A “coming of age” tale with a princess twist.

Lionness Quartet by Tamora Pierce

Alanna wants to become a knight, so she chops off her hair, binds her breasts and kicks butt. These books were recommended to me by my neighbor, who was about 5 or 6 years older than me, with the caveat “your mom should read these first to make sure they’re appropriate.” Well, my mom was taking too long to read them, so I sneaked them out of her room and read them anyway. There were definitely some blush-worthy moments, but nothing a determined young reader couldn’t handle. This series introduced challenging gender norms before I even knew what gender norms really were, and I was a faithful Tamora Pierce reader for years after reading this series.

What books did you like as a kid?

Recently read: ‘100 Places Every Woman Should Go’

New York City. Morocco. Brazil. If you’re looking for travel inspiration, this is it.

I purchased 100 Places Every Woman Should Go from a used book store and even though it’s a bit old (published in 2007) it doesn’t fail to induce wanderlust.

100 Places Every Woman Should Go

This isn’t a guidebook, although it does have some practical information like tour recommendations, addresses, and must-sees. Each chapter is based on a specific location or theme, like “Famed Chocolate Sites.” I liked to pick it up at random and see which location I landed on, kind of like jabbing my finger at a spinning globe.

While some of the places featured didn’t sound enjoyable to me, it does include a wide variety of countries and activities to please every traveler, from shopaholics and spa-seekers to nudists and hikers.

This would be a good gift or coffee table book to flip through (though I do wish it had more photos!).

A day in the life of a study abroad student

Studying abroad is full of thrilling new opportunities, but when classes start, it’s easy to get into a routine that’s not exactly “exciting.”

8 a.m.: Alarm on my phone goes off. Hit snooze and go back to sleep.

8:10 a.m.: Alarm goes off again. Hit snooze again and go back to sleep again.

8:20 a.m.: Alarm goes off again. Hit snooze and turn on light, then lay back down in bed.

8:25 a.m.: Finally awake enough to get ready for the day. Pick out an outfit from the same clothes I’ve been wearing for the past month.

8:40 a.m.: Go downstairs for breakfast, which is toast with butter or jelly and tea or coffee. It’s not extravagant, but hey, it’s free.

9:00 a.m. – noon: French class, taught by an awesome man who usually teaches linguistics at the university. We do grammar exercises, listening activities, written work and group discussions. It’s extremely difficult, and my brain feels like it’s melting afterward.

Noon – 1:30 p.m.: Free time. I can get lunch at the cafeteria (usually sandwiches), eat a quick lunch in my room (usually involving Nutella), work on homework, or take a nap.

1:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.: European Integration and Politics class. We just started the second half of the course today, which is taught by a Parisian lawyer who speaks five languages.

Lille, France

After class, we’re free once again. On Mondays we usually have a program-sponsored event (tonight is a French and International Aperitif, which will have a sampling of wine, cheese and snacks), and typically once a week we have a group dinner with the professor from NC State. When there isn’t anything planned, I work on homework, go to the mall, walk around town, or go to a bar and watch soccer.

Now that I have this general schedule, which includes six hours of class, it’s easy to say “I’m tired,” and just hang out at the university. I have less than two weeks remaining in Lille, so I want to make the most of it. (If that means missing a homework assignment, oh well. In the long run, I think exploring Lille to the fullest will be more meaningful than preparing for a French debate about Internet pirating laws.)

I originally wrote this post for a local news website in Raleigh while I was studying abroad in Europe in July 2012.


Looking back over this post almost three years later, here are some takeaways:

  • Catch up on sleep whenever you can.
  • Eat the “free” food the program supplies (remember, you already paid for it) so you can save your money for excursions and fun nights out with new friends.
  • Go to class and do the work. Get the most out of our international education and impress the host professors.
  • At the same time, remember: This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so don’t miss out on any unique experiences. Time management is key here. You don’t want to have to stay home to finish a paper while everyone else does something fun!